I chose to write about “Clock of the Long Now” by Stewart Brand. A book, documenting a cultural project, emphasizing the passing of time and its significance to humanity. But let me start with Mathematics.
In fact, one of the best introductions to the concept of “The Long Now” isn’t given in the book itself, but rather in Brian Hayes’ book, “Group Theory in the Bedroom”, which tells the story of the Strasbourg astronomical clock, located inside the city’s cathedral. Calling it a ‘clock’ is like calling your laptop a calculator; While it fulfills that role in some way, designers have taken a few choices to extend it’s functionality to a slightly more advanced area. The clock of Strasbourg is a time-telling machine, more rather a time-and-space telling machine. A computer.
Telling time is big business
Building a mechanical calendar, you see, isn’t so easy. In fact, the research of Calendrical Calculation is still an active business in Applied Mathematics. There’s a good reason for that: Calendar systems were built upon observation, with very crude instruments. The Gregorian year had a good reason to be just that, at the time it seemed like a good approximation of the cycles of the earth- now it makes a lot less sense. There’s something inherently flawed in any observation-based approximations – small shifts in initial conditions may later cause the approximated system to spin out of desired control. When ‘later’ happens in the observable future, the system is said to be Chaotic.
Chaos is essentially what happened to most religious calendars. Ramadan will occur in any season, the Jewish calendar adds an entire lunar month (!) every 4 years to keep Rosh Hashana in balance, and the well-adjusted Gregorian seems to have suffered very little with that nimble leap day, but calculating Easter still seems to be a pickle, and modern Physics decided to give it a gentle slap of reality with the discovery that the earth is, in fact, slowing down.
Telling accurate time involves adjusting the time model to those quirks in the real world as they are discovered. That’s why the story of the Strasbourg clock is significant. It was built three times; Once in the 14th century, working for less than 200 years, again in the 16th century, with a slightly more advanced time telling mechanism – again, stopping after less than 200 years, and later in 1841, with an amazingly complex gear system, capable of correcting the precession of the equinoxes, with a cycle of approximately 25,000 years. Achieving that requires some advanced cycle calculations and very, very precise gears. Some components in this machine were planned to only be triggered once every 400 years, while others were planned to complete a loop every hour. Someone working for something greater than himself and his generation (the Church – greatness too is transient) built a component that wouldn’t complete a cycle until 25 thousand years have passed.
Someone, in his right mind, thought that far into the future, used everything he knew about the world, and sent his time capsule forward.
Time is subjective, culture is chaotic
“Clock of the Long Now” is riddled with tales on the perspective of time. The Ancient Egyptian culture, with its different permutations, lasted 3000 years. 2000 years later, modern western culture was still struggling to understand and recreate their language. Prior to the Egyptians, humans have been around, with conditions to form a culture around agriculture, some 5,000 to 7,000 years, with the gradual ending of the ice age. None of the cultures from that time exist today. Moreover, cultures seem to be lasting an increasingly (decreasingly?) shorter period of time, yet appear to be lasting longer. With the advancement of crafting technology more relics can be found from any era. Georgian era artifacts may be popular but scarce in antique stores – Victorian era paraphernalia are slightly more common due to the concurrent industrial revolution; But these days, American Apparel started selling mass-produced fanny packs from the 80’s.
The human perception of time in retrospect may be related to the concatenation of memorable events. This world is full of events, the internet turned it into the most massive documented history so far, Metcalfe’s Law predicts an even further explosion in orders of magnitude of information according to its size, and this is even before discussing a possible change in the human thinking machine itself, with Ray Kurzweil’s controversial idea of the Singularity. In other words – Time, as we know it, is accelerating.
But there’s another contributing factor to our short and selective memory. History itself, even if not written by the victors (sorry), is at the very least curated by them. The history of book burning, from the library of Alexandria (containing hundreds of thousands of irrecoverable manuscripts in classical arts and science) to the prosecution and execution of intellectuals during the Khmer Rouge period tells us one important thing about the humanity: humanity keeps forgetting. Documentation of hundreds of years of evolution may be wiped in mere months (for example, the extinction of the Mayans). The increase in artifacts does not, in any way, equate to an increase in collective knowledge.
In order for humanity to learn anything new, says the author, it must meditate on its past.
Build a bigger clock, then
The actual clock of the long now, the one that the book revolves around, is being built. Like the Strasbourg clock, it’s a mechanical time-telling computer. Unlike it – it’s a boolean-logic (digital!) machine, with stacks and registers, built mechanically. It’s not a fast construction project, the thought behind it is for such a clock to be able to survive 10,000 years. The project was planned to have one site in a city and one in the middle of a desert.
In it, there would be multiple chambers, for people to walk inside the computer. It would have a library, curating as much as possible significant history of each human era. The clock would signify the objective passing of time, in terms of the relative passing of cultures. It is designed to be maintained by humans (not machines), to cooperate (not compete) with multiple religions, and to hopefully survive any future dark ages, in which prior knowledge of the world is wiped out.
“The Clock of the Long Now” ultimately addresses the inherent inability of any finitely-resourced culture to predict the future. If it survives 10, 000 years, people will have the same perspective of our era as we have of the end of the ice age. If it survives any shorter period of time, it would serve as a reminder to humans (Maybe not even humans? can we guarantee that?) of the meaning of those fragile initial conditions. That the far future is, in fact, chaotic.